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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Messenger - No. 303

One step at a time, Angela urged herself. 

The tread of her clacking heels on the marble floor reverberated in her ears.  Each stride accentuated the tremble racing up her legs and seemed out of rhythm with the musicians’ beat and the party’s vibrant atmosphere.

As she navigated the throng, another bellowing laugh erupted from the celebration’s head table.  Glasses clunked onto the white table cloth, sloshing claret drops onto the pristine surface and causing the china to clatter.  The trio of faces turned to her as she arrived and dipped into a brief curtsy.

"Yes?"  The bushy faced Minster cocked a fluffy brow.  His eyes seemed to stab into her, as if sensing her true purpose.

Angela swallowed and ensured her words emerged clear and humble.  "Pardon my intrusion Minister Treymon.  There's message for Sir Gerard.”

Shifting his cup aside, Gerard leaned forward.  His mouth twitch with amusement, his eyes wavered in wine.  "Well, where is it?"

"In the foyer, sir," said Angela.  "It was marked with some urgency and….”  She clasped her hands together, inched forward, and lowered her voice. “Privacy, sir."

His dark eyes glittered for a moment, suggesting some thought within their depths.  Slouching back into his seat, Gerard finished his cup and then rose.  With a tug, he squared the lapels of his tuxedo jacket and then clapped the second man on back.

"Have that filled by the time I'm back, Maynar."

"Filled and finished if you take your time about it," said Maynar, kneading his pudgy shoulder in the wake of the hearty blow. 

Angela regained her stoic facade as Maynar’s squinty eyes raked her laced gown.  Her dull sage seemed suddenly in need of a good scrub.

Meanwhile, Gerard rounded the table, balancing himself on the backs of vacated chairs.  "Where is this foyer?"

"This way, sir," said Angela.

She turned with an exhale, grateful to put her back to the two dignitaries and have the other in tow.  A rough sea of others eating, dancing, and conversing, surged between her and the glass-faced doorway leading from the hall.  As she started skirting the dance floor, the musicians perked up, strings and brass rising above the banter.  Angela nearly tumbled when a hand clasped hers.

"Messages can wait," said Gerard as he spun her toward him.  "I feel like dancing."

"I don't think that would be appropriate, sir."

"And who's going to stop me?”

Angela tried to free her hand but found his fingers taunt.  "I’m afraid I am."

"Why is that?"

"I'm not a guest."

"You work here?"

Angela gulped as he found her waist and settled a hand at the small of her back.  "Yes, I do," she said.

"But you're not from around here."

She balked at the unexpected jab.  "What makes you say that?"

"Your hair is darker than these northerners.   Your skin too.  If I had to guess, you're from the coast, nearer to my home.”

She ground her teeth even as she made her lips curve into a smile.  "I've been recently hired."

Gerard smirked.  "Then they’ll understand your confusion about the rules."

He swept her onto the dance floor, in between another couple decked in a tuxedo and sparkling emerald gown.  A spin later and Angela found herself against Gerard's chest, held tight by a sudden stiff arm against her spine and vice-grip on her fingers.  Gerard’s breath warmed her ears.

"I don’t think you work here,” he whispered.  “I think you're a spy.”

She cringed as the previous slur in his voice vanished.  "For you,” whispered Angela.  “And you're in danger, sir."

He jolted at the statement, locking his eyes with hers.  His broke the stare a second later and gazed over the crowd while drawing them into the center of those dancing.  A swirl of ebony and jeweled tones washed around them as they circled to the waltzing tune.

Gerard leaned closer.  "Which one?"

"Treymon," whispered Angela.

"He wouldn't."

"We captured his telegram this morning.  There's an assassin on the loose, here, tonight."

The music faded to a low rumble of cellos, encouraging spins and quieting their hushed exchange.  They traversed the marble during a rise in the violas and flutes.  Gerard accelerated their pace without losing the beat.

"What’s your message?"

"Directions to get you to safety.”

Gerard snorted.  "I'm not running like some coward."

"Then you're going to get shot, stabbed, poisoned or worse," said Angela.  She caught his eye and hardened her gaze.  "We need to get you to safety."

"You?"  His lips quirked into a hearty grin, one expanding as Angela bristled.

"There are others waiting outside,” she whispered.  “Ones who'd make less appropriate dancing partners."

"I'm afraid you'll have to tell them to wait," said Gerard. 

He maneuvered them to the opposite side of the room where the columned foyer became visible through the opened doors.  Slinging her arm through his, Gerard strode into the entry hall far enough to put them out of sight of his seat of honor and the two waiting for his return.  He plucked a pair of glasses with pools of champagne from a waiter’s tray and offered one while downing his.

Angela gripped the glass stem as Gerard inspected her with a thoughtful scan. 

"Why are you doing this?"

"If you die," said Angela, "the Council's leadership falls to Treymon and his family...and."  She escaped into the fizzing in her glass.  "Mine was in Loradno.”

Silence surrounded them in a bubble of sudden stillness, untouched by the music and banter so close by.   While bloodied memories tainted her thoughts, a colder part of Angela’s mind wondered if he had heard her, if he understood.

"I'm sorry," said Gerard.

A blink cleared a swell of rage- filled tears and she lifted her chin.  "I won't let anyone willing to massacre hundreds get command of an army, let alone a nation."

Gerard frowned.  "That was the Hepsbars, not us."

Gathering the oval locket dangling from her neck, Angela opened the clasp and retrieved the tiny page tucked within.  The brittle sheet crinkled in her fingers as she hurriedly unfolded the note.  Nimble penmanship crammed the sliver with a squat and fading paragraph, but the imprint of the seal at the end remained unmistakable.

Gerard's eyes darted over the order, his brow furrowing as he neared the end.  "That conspiring bastard."

"There's more evidence beside this communiqué," said Angela, tucking the message back into her locket and within the safety of her gown.

Gerard swiveled toward the hall, where music and laughter soared.  He stood rigid, like a hound sensing prey.

"Please sir," said Angela, hovering at his side.  "We need to leave.  You're not safe here."

"I haven't been safe for years," whispered Gerard, his voice a bare murmur.  He turned back, his shoulders straightening as if yoked now by a long debated decision.  "Thank your friends and find some safe place for yourself.  You'll have been noticed."

"Where are you going?"

"I won't run," said Gerard, "and I can't imagine my people would respect a leader who did.  I'll take care of this myself."

"But—" She grasped his arm, and then stared, wide eyed at her own hand.

Gerard gingerly extracted his limb from her grasp, and captured her fingers.  "Don't worry.  Treymon is not the only one with plans for my future."

"Please, sir," said Angela.

His grin returned, shaded by a malice intent Angela felt grateful was not directed at her. 

"Wait and see," said Gerard. 

After a brushed kiss on the back of her hand, he released her and strode into the hall.  Angela hurried to the doorway, tucking herself within the fronds of a massive fern.  Her thoughts spun on what to tell the others, and on Treymon’s response to whatever actions Gerard might take.  As she spied him passing through the parting crowd, she held her breath and prayed for the patience to find out.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Headlines - No. 299

Meredith set her coffee mug onto the counter.  "Has she told you why?"

"No," said Bert.

Sighing, Meredith filled her cup from the silver pot and returned the canister to its station.  A low buzz indicated the radio spewing the morning news, but she couldn’t focus through her worried musings enough to make sense of the headlines.   

Drifting to the kitchen’s main entrance, she stared toward the front door.  The last piece of luggage remained beside the hall closet.  Tags from a variety of airlines and hotels clung to the handle and dents marred the curved sides.  Through the living room window, she spied Natalie’s car parked alongside the curb.  The out-of-state plates with their government insignia seemed garish against the plain concrete.

Down the flanking hallway, the second bedroom’s door opened and shut.  Soft padding of slippers traversed the carpet.

Meredith slipped into the kitchen and pretended to pour a fresh cup.

Natalie shuffled in, her hair tousled.  Sleep made her plump cheeks sag.

"Morning kiddo," said Bert.

"Morning, Dad," said Natalie.  She hunched in a plush violet robe, one matching the fuzzy slippers keeping her feet from the tile.

"Want something to eat?"  Meredith motioned toward the refrigerator and then tipped her chin at the harvest of fruit by the sink.

"Coffee's great," said Natalie. 

Turning her back, she opened the cupboard and sifted through the mugs.  Meredith caught Bert's gaze, but he shrugged and flipped open the newspaper.

"Milk's in the fridge,” said Meredith, “and the sugar—"

"I remember," said Natalie.  She opened the door hiding the shelves of spices and collected the pewter sugar bowl.  "It hasn't been that long."

"Three years between visits is a long time," said Meredith.  She glided to the nearest chair tucked beneath the dining table and gripped the rounded frame.  "You must have a reason for this one."

"Meredith," said Bert to the financial section.

"It's our house,” said Meredith.  “She's our daughter.  I think we have a right to know why she shows up in the middle of the night."

“It was 9 o’clock.”  Natalie poured herself a cup and breathed in the steam.  The heat seemed to melt the tension stiffening her shoulders.  She managed a small smile when she looked up.  "I can't just drop in for a few days?"

"You don't just drop in without a reason, Natalie."

"Hey look," said Bert, pointing at the paper. "Isn't that your boss?  Williams or Wallace or something."

"Welkin," said Natalie.

Meredith frowned at the crisp tone invading her daughter's voice.  She stepped aside as Natalie darted across the kitchen and hovered at her father's shoulder.  Natalie peered at the paper, her features contorting into a scowl as she glanced along the column.

"It’s out already?"

Meredith squinted at the gray pages. "What’s out?"

"Nothing, Mom," said Natalie.  She returned to the counter and started spooning sugar into her mug.

"Oh my," said Bert. 

He splayed the newspaper onto the table and leaned forward.  With his liver-spotted finger he followed a line of text while adjusting his black rimmed spectacles.

"Which are you—" Meredith gasped and covered her gaping mouth as she spied the relevant headline.  She swiveled slowly, her eyes wide as she latched upon her daughter’s back.  "Natalie!"

Natalie set her spoon down with a clatter.  "It's not what it sounds like."

"It sounds like you had an affair."

"He was getting a divorce," said Natalie, spinning to face them.

Meredith thumped down her mug and crossed her arms.  "That's supposed to make it better?  Make it acceptable?"

"You don't understand what's really going on."

"Oh please, may my only child enlighten me."

Natalie pointed at the paper.  "They're bringing it up now to smear our environmental bill.  They want a distraction.  They want to undermine what's right by having everyone focus on this nonsense."

"Nonsense?"  Meredith scoffed.  "Sleeping with a married man is not nonsense."

"He was separated.  He’s divorced now."

Meredith shook her head as rational thoughts aligned.  "This is why you're here isn't it?  You're hiding from this."

"My daughter never hid from anything in her life," said Bert, adding his own level glower to the staring contest.

"Dad."  Natalie snagged her cup and listed against the counter.  Her gaze sank into her coffee and her whole body slumped.  "We thought it'd be better this way."

Meredith scowl faded into a frown.  "We?"

Natalie caressed the handle of her cup, a small curve lighting her mouth.  "I don't just sleep around, Mom."

"So you're still seeing this man?"

Natalie reached beneath the collar of her robe.  Her fingers emerged, pulling on a gold chain threaded with a diamond ring.  "We're engaged actually."

Meredith's jaw dropped.  "Natalie."

Natalie’s lips formed a tentative smile.  "Sometimes the best parts don't make it into the papers.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Detour - No. 288

Pulling her sedan over to the sidewalk, Carla peered at the passenger seat.  She wondered if the canvas was still warm.  Her lips had cooled although her heart’s thumping kept her blood churning like a greyhound circling a track.  She dropped her head, avoiding the glitter of the ring on her finger, but fell into the aroma of spiced cologne clinging to her sweater.  With a wince, she zipped her coat over the smell.

She jolted as the passenger door handle thumped.

Looking up, she froze as Eddie filled the window.  He waved and then pointed at the lock.

"It's locked," he said, his words misted and muffled by the car’s frame.

The idea to keep driving nearly pressed Carla’s foot upon the gas.

That’s not fair, she chided, you have to tell him.

So instead, Carla leaned over and pulled the squat plug.

Eddie swept inside, and rubbed his bare hands together.  "Damn aren’t you cold?"

He adjusted the knobs on the dashboard and a gust of engine-warmed air spewed from the vents.

"Thanks," she whispered.

“What kept you?"

She avoided the question with a glance into the side mirror and noted a brief gap in the traffic.  Flicking on her blinker, she darted into the flow.  With a shrug, Eddie buckled his seatbelt and shimmied against the canvas.

"I was thinking afterwards, we could catch a bite to eat."

Carla nodded absently, and kept her gaze on the road.

"Jess and Mable invited us over too.  You remember them from work?"

"Yeah," said Carla, unburying their faces from the throng.  Around the remembered mob, a fortress of cubicle walls, file cabinets, and computer screens created a maze in her thoughts.  She dashed through the mental warren, desperate for air, for light, for space.  Unbidden, another set of features entered the labyrinth.  He gazed at her, dark eyes attentive and encompassing like a flawless night sky.

"When's good for you?"

Carla blinked the vision of him clear and frowned.  "For what?"

"To have dinner with them.  I think they want to do it as a congratulations thing."

Her stomach twisted and her conscience urged her to speak.  "Um...about that—"

"I was thinking Saturday night.  You're done with class at what 7?”

“No, 8.”

“Yeah, we could meet them at 8."  Eddie retrieved his phone and started crafting a text.

"Eddie, wait."

"It'll just take me a second."  He frowned as a ding sounded and started reading the new message.

"Eddie,” said Carla, tightening her grip on the wheel as the surrounding cars closed.

He grunted in Neanderthal acknowledgement, his thumbs twitching once more.

The next traffic light threatened to flip to red.  Carla surged through and then the road filled with a barricade of glowing brake lights.  A sense of being trapped tripled her heartbeat.  She sought a route through the other cars, but they clustered around her like a smothering blanket.

Eddie glanced up as honks brayed in a jarring crescendo.  “Why don’t you head over there?  Or that way?”

Suppressing a growl, Carla veered at the second open space he’d pointed to, causing another driver to sound his horn.  The sudden long drawl of an eighteen wheeler made her jump.  The huge vehicle came up alongside her sedan, obscuring the far side of the street.

“Careful,” said Eddie.  He turned back to his screen as his phone beeped.

Carla ground her hands on the wheel, and darted into the far right lane, only to be cut off by a swerving SUV.  She pressed the brakes and bared her teeth.  They lunged to a halt and she crashed back into her seat.  For a moment, the desire to be anywhere else became overwhelming.  A car behind her honked and she shook her head.

"I can't do this," she whispered.  She spied an opening and pulled onto the shoulder.

"Whoa,” said Eddie, looking up from his screen with a scowl.  “What are you doing?  We're going to be late."

"I don't care.  I can't do this."

"It's just traffic, Carla.”  He snorted at the speeding lanes and cocked a jeering brow.  “You want me to drive?”

"No, Eddie. You're not listening."

"Of course I am, you don't want to drive."

"No, you're not...."  She took a deep breath.  "You're not hearing me.  I can't do this."  She striped the ring from her finger and held it out, the facets sparkling like rubies in the traffic’s ambient glow.  "I made a mistake."

Eddie looked at the ring with the intensity he usually gave his computer screens.  "I…I don't understand."

"Please, just take it," said Carla, her words blazing with a fiery edge.

Eddie reached up and plucked the tiny jeweled circle from her grasp.  "What…what happened?"

"Nothing," said Carla.

His frown deepened.  "Bullshit."

She winced at the hurt in his curse.

"I just can't do this," she whispered.

His phone buzzed.  Eddie latched onto the screen like a man searching for a cure.  "They're wondering where we are."

“I’ll drop you off.”

Carla reentered the traffic and navigated the final stretch of streets.  Even the low hum of the radio couldn't combat the stunned quiet.

Drawing up to the sidewalk once more, she kept her hands on the steering wheel and faced the odometer rather than the space on her left finger or the ring Eddie now held in his opened palm.  He stared at the jewel as if seeking the answer to an enigma.

"What did I do?"

"Nothing," said Carla.  "This isn't about you."

"That's what they say when it IS all about you."

"This isn't.  This is about me," said Carla.  "About what I need, about what I want."

"And you don't want me."

She cringed and forced herself to meet his wounded gaze.  "Not like that, Eddie, not anymore."

"When?"  He gulped and blinked furiously, as if to evade droplets pooling in his eyes.  "When did you figure all this out?"

"Before you asked."

"Then why'd you say yes?"

"I don't know,” said Carla, matching the anger leaping from his throat.  “How do you say no to a proposal?"

"By saying no."

She exhaled and fought to temper her voice.  "I guess I didn't have the guts then."

"And you do now?"

"Yeah," said Carla.  "I needed to, before it was too late."

Another round of quiet descended, punctuated by two bleats from his phone.  Eddie scanned each, and then tapped the screen into darkness.  He sighed, his shoulders sloping.

"Can you tell me one thing?"

"I can try," said Carla.

"Is there somebody else?"

"It's not about that Eddie."

"Like hell it's not."  He closed his ring-holding hand into a white-knuckled fist.  "Who is he?"

Carla stiffened in her seat as her lips blazed.  "This is my decision, Eddie.  No one's driving me to it. No one's waiting to take your place.  I just need space.  I need to figure out what I want and chase it down.  I know it's not getting married and working in the same old office for the rest of my life."

"What's so wrong with that?"

"Nothing." She tried to find a small smile.  "It's just not for me."

He hung in her eyes for a contemplative heartbeat.  "You're leaving town aren't you?"

“Maybe, I’m not sure where I’ll go.  I've got a lot of thinking to do, decisions to make.  This life works for you. I need to find what works for me."

"It was working," he said, stuffing his phone away.


He raised his free hand.  "Good luck figuring it out."

Exiting, he slammed the door, the bang cracking off like a shot.

Carla winced and stared at the wheel.  The thump of his tread dwindled, ending finally with the clang of the entry door into the theater.

After a few deep breaths, Carla raised her gaze.

The road stretched before her, full of stoplights and illuminated brakes.  A moment later all the red vanished.  The cars surged.  Carla joined them.

Halfway through the next intersection she felt weight slip from her shoulders.  A destination came into her mind, drawing her forward like a moth to flame.  She smiled and then a nervous but vibrant chuckle flew from her lips and filled the air.  In the next moment, she swore she was flying.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Intercepted - No. 283

Wendy ran her manicured fingers along the scooped neck of her dress and finished off her glass of water.  Candlelight glimmered along the damp edge marred with a hint of peach-tinged gloss and on the empty place setting on the table’s opposite side.  Nudging the salt shaker, Wendy evened the distance between the pepper and flickering votive.

A gust from the restaurant’s entryway fluttered the diminutive flame, and snared her gaze.  She teased her bangs as the maitre d' appeared.  He led a leggy blonde with too short a skirt for the width of her thighs.  The woman draped herself upon the arm of a thick shouldered bald man who looked more like security than a date.

Sighing, Wendy sagged back into her chair as the trio traversed the maze of tables housing the other couples murmuring in quiet conversation.  Some held hands. Others leaned so close the firelight played with the shadows on their faces.  She looked away as a red-haired tittered and flipped her locks over a half-bared shoulder while her companion leaned forward, his eyes wandering freely.

Gathering her water glass close, Wendy circled the rim and stared at the melting ice.

"Can I give you a refill?"

She glanced up as Todd, with his perpetual grin, arrived and offered a beaded pitcher.

"Sure," said Wendy.

"I'm guessing you're still waiting?"

Wendy ground her teeth.  I'm guessing you're still not getting a tip, she reasoned.  Instead of voicing the sarcastic jab, she gave him a lean smile and held out the glass.

Todd poured, making a show of the event by raising the pitcher to head height and back.

"I'll be back in a minute," said Todd.

Goodie, she thought.  Giving him a silent toast, Wendy settled back and took another long glug.

"Isn't it amazing, Rog?"

Wendy nearly spat the mouthful at the sound of Jessie’s purring voice.  Forcing herself to swallow, she clutched the glass and swiveled toward the entrance as if a massive hand turned her head upon her neck.  She cringed at the sequins sparking on the familiar ruby dress, the one she hung beside the maroon number and the honeysuckle pink she had donned for tonight. 

"I don't believe it," she whispered. 

Her arm shook, and she set the glass down before she spilt.

"It is pretty nice," said Roger, towering over Jessie’s head.  He adjusted his tie, the cobalt one that highlighted his eyes, and scanned the room. 

Wendy fled into a rapid study of the charger and plate set before her.  Roger's face, however, appeared on the white void, while Jessie's made-up features dotted the curved edge.

"Hey,” said Roger, “isn't that Wendy?"

Putting her hand to her stomach, Wendy fought against its desperate plunge through the seat as it raced her heart for escape.

"Maybe," said Jessie, her husky tone turning brittle.

Wendy shut her eyes as Roger's steps neared.

"Wendy?  What are you doing here?"

Gripping onto the tablecloth's extra fabric, she met Roger's gaze.  She avoided drifting to Jessie, who appeared at his shoulder like a pirate's parrot.  Tightening her grasp, Wendy forced her tone to firm. 

"I guess you didn't get my card?"

Roger frowned.  "Card?  What card?"

"The one my roommate said she'd mail for me."

He cocked his head to the side, and then glanced at Jessie.  All the blush on her cheeks couldn't hide the sudden blanch of her pallor.

"I put it in the mail, Wendy."

"Of course you did."  Wendy rose, and tossed her napkin onto the plate.  "If you two would excuse me."

"Wait," said Roger. 

He snatched her arm as she began striding past.  Wendy wobbled on her heels and stared at his hand, fearful of what she'd find if she actually met his gaze.  The weight of the restaurant’s communal focus sent a flush of heat throughout her body, as if she roasted before a stoked fire.

"What are you talking about, Wendy?"

"Did she invite you?"


Wendy found herself meeting his eyes. "Did she or was this your idea?"

"She did," he whispered.

"And you said yes."

"I didn't see a reason not to."

She winced and lowered her gaze.  With a tug, she escaped his grasp and resumed her stoic march.


"It's all right, Rog," said Jessie. 

Wendy didn't look back, but lifted her chin and strode from the dining room.  The maître d' jolted behind his menus and pinned himself to his stand, leaving the way to the entrance clear. 

Striding outside, the fading winter night swirled, rustling her skirts and reminding her of her checked coat and the purse she’d left dangling on the chair.  With her irritation boiling, Wendy stormed on.   She located her car even though the parking lot wavered in her watering vision like a vanishing mirage.


She hugged her arms, and ignored Todd's call.  Working through the line of cars, she found her waiting hatchback, the growing frost softening its midnight blue.  She stared at the driver's window, at the fastened lock, at her hunched reflection in the clouded glass.


She hunched closer as Todd came up behind her.

"You forgot your purse, Miss."

Wendy nodded her thanks and claimed the clutch with its string-like strap.  Todd lingered, swaying from foot to foot like a grayscaled metronome. 

"Are you okay, Miss?"

"I’m fine," whispered Wendy. 

Fetching her keys from within the indigo bag, she unlocked the car with a press on the fob.  She found a few bills milling between the slim collection of makeup and her cell phone. 

"Thanks," she said, offering whatever had found its way into her grasp.

"It's okay," said Todd, although his gaze flicked to her hand, and hovered for a moment before returning to her face.  "As long as you are."

Wendy clenched her fist and fumbled with the door handle.  She opened the car and nodded, wary actual words might shatter her thin veneer of composure.  Slipping into the chilled driver's seat, she slammed the door before Todd could offer any more consoling sentiments.  She focused on stuffing the bills back into her purse until his presence vanished.

The sense of being alone rushed in on his heels. 

Wendy squeezed her eyes shut around the first descent of tears.  They dropped nonetheless, hot on her cheeks, and plopping like weighted stones on to her bare hands.  Her shoulders shuddered as anger and embarrassment vied for command.  She let both swirl, alternatively pounding on the steering wheel, while covering her wracked gasps with her hand.  Thoughts of what she'd done, what Jessie'd done, Roger's ignorance, and the consequences of the evening, rode upon the rise and fall of her nerves, sharpening rage and then deepening a sense of loss for something she might now never have. 

A light rap on the window jerked her from the ups and downs.  Through the mist she'd added to the glass, she made out Roger's looming face.  He squinted as if to peer inside, and knocked again.

Brushing away her tear smears, Wendy checked her fingers for mascara streaks.  Dark blobs marred her skin.  Dabbing her eyes, she sucked in a rattled inhale before laying a hand on the window's control.  She rotated the lever, each thud lowering the glass another inch.

She sniffed and blamed it on the cold.  "What are you doing here?"

Roger grinned, a lopsided curve inspiring a tremble in her stomach.  "What do you think?  I'm meeting my date."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Repercussions - No. 279

The elevator dinged and opened.  Inhaling a deep breath, Ashley strode out and down the corridor.  She halted at the doorway filled with an opaque glass panel and letters naming the attorneys within.

Before laying a hand on the knob, she checked her silver-banded watch and allowed the intervening seconds to pass, bringing her closer to top of the hour and her scheduled meeting time.  The watch's pearlescent surface glimmered, like the Christmas lights when she had lifted the lid of the small case and found the jeweled time-keeper inside.  She recalled the hug, her father's beaming smile, and his stern reminder to make every second count.

This afternoon, the two hands pointed straight at their targets, and she knew no more delaying tactics remained.  If she lingered any longer, a tactful message from Bernice would make her phone bleat, and in time, her father would worry.  Not to mention the growing impatience of the police officers and detectives stewing in the building's main lobby.

Putting the four keepers of the peace out of her mind, she seized the knob and entered the office.

"I was about to call you," said Bernice from her seat behind the stump of desk occupying one half of the vacant waiting room.  She deposited the phone back into its cradle and pressed the intercom instead.  "Mr. Mason?"


Ashley cringed at the static version of her father's voice coming through the speakers.  The tinny echo seemed far too frail.

"Mrs. Grant is here to see you," said Bernice.

Her father’s pause nearly tripped Ashley's heart. 

He already knows it's over, she thought.

"Show her in," said her father.

Bernice stood and rounded her clutter, her wide hips giving the piles of folders and paperwork enough of a berth to avoid tipping them onto the checkered carpet.

"I know the way," said Ashley.

"This gives me a chance to stretch my legs," said Bernice.  Her nylons hushed against one another, like a muted cricket, and her knee length skirt thumped with every stride.

Ashley clutched her purse strap and followed with a quieter effort in her flats, slacks, and woolen coat.  Only the briefcase dangling from her other hand altered her gait, the burden feeling ten times what the contents and leather truly weighed.

Marching along the hallways, Bernice led past a darkened conference room and the closed doors of other offices.  Murmurs worked through the wooden panels, but Bernice spoke above them.

"Did you have a nice time in the Keys this summer?"

"We always do," said Ashley. 

The pit in her stomach expanded as she remembered the smiling faces of her children diving off the dock under her mother's watchful gaze.  She had been on the porch, looking down on them on when her father had joined her, when he had first warned her.

It's too late now, she reasoned.  Diverting her thoughts back to inane banter, Ashley forced a smile onto her lips.  "How have you been?"

"Oh fine," said Bernice.  She heaved a sigh heavy with unspoken problems too numerous to occupy the brief stretch of corridor.  "We make do."

"Don't we all?"

"Mmm hmm," said Bernice.

They reached the hallway's dead end, and she rapped upon the lone door.

"Is that you Bernice?" 

Ashley adjusted her grip on the briefcase's handle as her father's footsteps made the floor creak.

"Yes, Mr. Mason,” said Bernice.  “I’ve brought Mrs. Grant.”

A round of paper shuffling and a thump followed.

"He's been like this since Tuesday," said Bernice, lowering her voice and frowning at the door.

Ashley winced.  His message from that day repeated in her ears. 

"Recuse yourself, Ashley," he had said, repeating the words from their earlier porch interlude.  “Trust me on this, please."

But I didn't, mused Ashley. I was stubborn and thick headed, just like you'd taught me to be.

The shifting within the office ebbed.  "You can come in now."

Bernice opened the door, and Ashley sensed the woman tense through the thick layers of her tweed skirt and polyester blouse.  Within the office, the array of cardboard boxes stacked in neat rows gave the appearance of a fort wall under construction.

Bernice laid a hand on the doorframe.  "What’s all this, Mr. Mason?"

"I'll explain later, Bernice.  I don't want to keep Mrs. Grant waiting."

"Of course."  Bernice pivoted, allowing passage into the office.

Ashley endured the flick of Bernice's dark eyes as the other woman swept over her, the boxes, her father standing with his balding head bowed over his desk, and back again.

"Thanks, Bernice," whispered Ashley as she stepped inside.

She halted with her back to the entry, and fought not to jump when the door closed with a clack.  The truth seemed to hang in the air, thickening an impassible divide.  Forcing down a steadying gulp of saliva flavored of day-old coffee, she lifted her chin and waited for her father to look up.

He did so once Bernice's footsteps dwindled. 

The whites of his eyes had dulled; the sag of his face heavier now than it had been in the Key's tropical heat.  His shoulders sloped beneath his dress shirt, and the Windsor knot in his tie hung loose.  Even the suit coat, draped on a rack's limb, listed as if drenched.

"You wanted to see me, Mrs. Grant."

Every muscle in Ashley’s body clenched.  "Dad—"

"Please."  He raised a silencing hand, his golden wedding band catching the afternoon light cramming through the venetian blinds. "I'd like to keep this from becoming personal.  I'm sure my daughter would understand."

Ashley avoided a cringe, and replied with a curt nod as she worked words back onto her tongue.  "My investigations have brought to light the real cause of the accusations placed upon my client.  I wanted to see if you had anything to say on the matter."

"Doesn't this say enough?"  Mason swept his arm at the organized crates. 

"I'm not sure what this says," said Ashley.

"I'm leaving, retiring before this is all exposed.  I’m not going to let my mistake sink this whole firm, not after I’ve spent a lifetime building it.”

Ashley's mouth parched.  "So it was just you?"

Mason retrieved one nearby box and set it onto the center of his desk with a thud.  "You'll find your answers, all your evidence, in here.  Log books, names, the account numbers."

Inching forward, Ashley peered inside.  Journals and typed sheets stood in neat stacks, the bindings worn and edges crinkled with age.

She scowled and looked back up at his pinched face.  "Is this your way of striking a deal?"

"It's my way of coming clean," said Mason.  He sighed and another decade seemed to claim his features.  "I've kept quiet about this too long."

Ashley’s grip tightened on her briefcase and purse.  "And you tried to make it longer."

Mason lifted his downturned gaze, and a fire ignited in the brown depths, one she hadn't seen since she'd been caught with Adam Jenkins in his truck after the senior year homecoming game.

"I tried to keep you out of it," said Mason, his tone as torrid as his gaze.  "I didn't want you involved."

"How could I not be involved?"

"Not like this.  Not in Reynolds’ defense.  Anyone else would have followed the same breadcrumbs.  I didn't need you unearthing what I've done."

The heat in his tone sent her blood boiling.  "You would rather I'd been on the sidelines? Ignorant?"

"At least you would have been on my side, in my corner...Now...."  He looked away as if the sight of her pained him. 

Anger wrapped around Ashley’s heart, twining with guilt and sudden grief.  She eased her voice.  "I am on your side, Dad."

"You're defending...Him."

"Dillon Reynolds is innocent."

"I know that," said Mason, his words a near growl.  He stared into the box, the silence growing to smothering proportions.  When he spoke again, his voice had faded.  "Are they with you?"

"The police?"

Mason nodded without shifting his gaze.

"They're downstairs," said Ashley.  "I wanted the chance...the chance to talk with you before the arrest."

He lifted his eyes from the box, the weariness flooding his gaze.  "Well.  What more do you want to talk about?"

Ashley gulped, wetting her throat for the one question she had come to ask.  "Why?"

Mason scowled.  "Why what?"

"Why did you do it?"

She flinched as his eyes hardened in to muddy rocks.

"I think that's best told to my lawyer."

"It was because of us, wasn't it?  You did this for us?"

Mason's shoulders sagged. The hard line of his jaw softened.  He plunged into his chair, the leather groaning, and casters squeaking for grease.

"You could have told us," said Ashley.  She wove through the clutter and rounded the desk, dropping to a knee by his side.  "We would have understood."

He scoffed. "Understood not going to college?  Understood having to move to a smaller house?  Understood leaner Christmases?  No summer trips? Of cutting back on everything?"

He gripped the armrests as if fearful of sinking through the chair's seat.  Ashley laid her hand atop of his, shivering at the chill of her father's flesh and the frailty of his hand.  The bones seemed hollow, the veins ridges of ice.

Mason hung his head, his voice emerging like an echoed whisper. "I wanted to give you everything.  And then, I...couldn't stop.  These people, these promises, they wrap around you so tightly, when you want to get out they're strangling."

He drifted his gaze over the boxes, and chuckled, a bitter, pained sound.  "I guess the noose has finally tightened."


"No," he whispered.  He set his hand on hers and squeezed.  Vitality seemed to rush into his touch.  "It's better this way.  This way, it's over.  I don’t have to hide.  I don’t have to lie.  I don’t have to worry about Venzio or his thugs anymore."

Ashley fell into his eyes, and they glimmered with the weak smile curling his lips.

"Would you help me with the last part, Ashley?"

"Of course, Dad."

She fetched his coat and hat from the rack.  Holding them both, she hovered as he hauled himself from the indented curves of his chair, ones worn from decades of occupation.  He requested the coat with one hand, slipped it over his shoulders and donned his hat, drawing leathery fingers along the brim.

"Take that one," he said, pointing at the box of ledgers and notebooks.

"I'll send the lawyers back for them," said Ashley.

His faint grin wobbled, and he tipped his hat forward, shading his watering eyes.  He stuck out his elbow and Ashley looped her arm through the offered crook.

As they navigated the cardboard fortress, Ashley couldn't say who led who, or who needed more support.  Mason opened the door, and they crossed the threshold.  She waited as he took a final glimpse of the room where so much had passed, where the white of good intentions had smeared into gray. 

Steel seemed to drift into his spine as he shut the sight of his deeds behind the door.

"It's over," he whispered. 

Giving her hand a pat, they turned and side by side walked into the abyss of waiting repercussions.